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Bookends: Considering the Rise and Possible Fall of the West August 16, 2012

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends.
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Bookends: Considering the Rise and Possible Fall of the West

By Dan Davidson

June 27, 2012,      Star, June 29/12

– 971 words –

 

Civilization: The West and the Rest

By Niall Ferguson

Penguin Press

432 pages

$40.50

 

The temptation to evaluate the narrative of history according to our current circumstances has been with us for a long time. The Big Thinkers of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment (or Age of Reason) looked back on the period between them and the fall of the Roman Empire as the Dark Ages, judging that it had taken that many centuries to overcome the cultural deficit.

These days we usually just talk about the Middle Ages and skip the negative connotations. Passing judgment has tended to fall out of fashion.

But not always.

Shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union and George Bush the First’s announcement of the New World Order, Francis Fukayama came out with his analysis of the state of the world, The End of History and the Last Man, in which he held up Western Civilization (especially the American flavour) as the end product towards which all the world was moving inexorably. While he modified his views is a later book, the basic idea is one that has been popular with western historians over the centuries, as if the development of societies was an evolutionary process with our way of doing things the final stage.

Our own Gwynne Dyer has advanced the theory that some form of democracy (not necessarily quite the way we practice it) is on the rise in the world and is slowly displacing various other forms of government. To some degree, parts of what happened during the so-called Arab Spring seemed to justify his faith, though he had to be disappointed that there was quite so much violence is what he has tended to expect to be a peaceful revolution.

Jared Diamond offered a different interpretation, and the very title of his book, Guns, Germs and Steel, reveals the technological and geographical factors which he believed were crucial to the ascendancy the West has enjoyed over the rest of the world for the last 400 to 500 years.

Niall Ferguson covers much the same ground in this book, but uses a computer-generated metaphor to put forth his theory. In his view Western Culture was blessed with seven “killer applications” that put it out front in the race for economic and cultural primacy in the world.

These concepts, or apps, are: competition, science, the rule of law, consumerism, modern medicine, and the work ethic. While he devotes a chapter to each one of them, he also demonstrates a degree of inter-connectivity which, to my mind is rather like a Venn diagram. The overlapping circles only result in the world we have today when they all overlap.

Europe was a hotbed of competition because it was full of squabbling nations whereas the vast landmass that was China began to stagnate under the centralized control that did not encourage diverging views. Thus the wonder of the East, which was so far ahead of the West around 1300, had fallen far behind by the 20th century.

The Arab lands were once well ahead of Europe in terms of science and math, but religious repression of learning far more stringent than any scientific delays the Christian Church may have caused in Europe, froze all further development after the Middle Ages.

The development of the Rule of Law changed the way nations were governed, and while it may have been a concept that dated back to Hammurabi, most of the world did not embrace it, and a good deal of it still has not.

Advances in modern medicine came from the West. This may have been in part because western doctors were trying to find ways for Caucasians to survive in climates for which they were unsuited but it benefitted everyone in the long run. However, people of European stock got a big head start at being healthier and living longer than most of the world’s population.

Perhaps the most controversial app in the bundle is his contention that Christianity produces the kind of work ethic (sociologist Max Weber called it the Protestant Ethic, but it’s more than that) that causes people to be more productive and work to improve their lot in life.

I note that most reviewers of this book leave off the religious connection when they list the apps and just talk about productivity, but Ferguson doesn’t, and goes so far as to suggest that the current state of decline in the West is directly related to a decline in religious observance, particularly in Europe.

The last thing he tackles is consumerism, and particularly as it relates to textiles and clothing manufacture. The degree to which other nations copy the styles of the West is, he says, a good measure of how much they are prepared to copy all the other killer apps to make changes in their societies.

I freely admit that this last bit sounds a little too much like the note sounded in Charles Reich’s 1970 book The Greening of America (in which freeing one’s ankles in bell-bottoms was seen as an act of psychic liberation) for me to be quite comfortable with it, but the way he develops his argument makes sense.  Textile manufacturing was one of the first fruits of the Industrial Revolution in nearly every nation. Turkey and Japan, which both made major efforts to Westernize in the early 20th Century, signaled their intentions by adopting Western styles of dress.

This is a fascinating book, You could be put off by the title, but once into it you realize he is developing an argument about why the West is losing ground and why the Rest are catching up, and that changes the meaning of the title quite a bit.

 

-30-

 

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